By Abigail McDonald, Mercy Associate
Growing up in Guyana I thought of myself as Guyanese and Catholic. To be Black and woman was fraught with too many stereotypes that I did not know how to deal with. Yet still, I could not escape how my black skin affected every aspect of my life. Colorism exists in many Black families, whether overtly or covertly; mine was no different.
My older sister by just two years was considerably lighter skinned than me and had privileges that I did not. She had the rich friends with fancy cars and was invited to places that were not typical of a family of our socioeconomic status. Her popularity shone a light on our family that I believe influenced the way my parents parented her. I cannot recall a time in my childhood or adolescence of being told that I was beautiful. In contrast, my sister was gloated over for her beauty. She wielded a power that no one else dared, and we were trained to acquiesce to her demands. When she left high school, she immediately got a well-paying job, a stark contrast to my experience after graduation. I think in many ways that informed my early decision to not pursue an undergraduate degree, albeit a bad decision, and become an entrepreneur. To me, there was too much left to chance, especially at the height of the racial divide plaguing the country.
Guyanese traditionally vote along racial lines, and since citizens are often guided by leaders, the unfavorable job market for Black people was reflective of a divisive governance structure. When I left high school, just as it is today, the private and public sectors primarily had East Indian CEOs and decisionmakers at the helm. Since I did not want my blackness to be an impediment to my ability to provide for myself and my parents, I created an illusionary world from which I would live. For the most part, it worked, but every so often I felt a tap on my shoulder reminding me of what it means to be a Black person living in Guyana.
I lived through the pillaging of Black bodies at the hands of the Phantom Squad, the Death Squad, and the Black Clothes Police during the extrajudicial killings of 2002. I heard every justification for taking the lives of my Black brothers, “He was a drug dealer,” “He was a thief,” “He was lazy.” I know the fragility of the Black body all too well. At any point it could be destroyed and written as a story of personal undoing.
Living at the intersection of racism and sexism is exhausting. Following the swearing-in of President Irfaan Ali in August 2020, a period of heightened racial tensions, former minister within the Natural Resources Ministry, Simona Broomes, was likened to everything that was subhuman as she protested the unlawful entry of someone into her home. Broomes was referred to as an ape, dog, pig and other names too vile to repeat. In Guyana and around the world, it is apparent that the idea of a powerful woman is too much to bear, especially a Black woman.
As I reflect on my experiences of being a girl and a woman in the church, I realize that I was spellbound. Life and dignity, equality and freedom are all values that the church is supposed to uphold. And for most of my life, I believed the church was committed to honoring those values. So I participated willingly; after all, it was noble and what I believe God wants for humankind. However, when I migrated to the United States in 2014 and could no longer escape the color of my skin, I began to unpack my Catholic identity. Today, I find many Catholic values deeply patronizing. You cannot just talk about racism; you have to walk with the oppressed, and, quite frankly, some of the discussions I have heard seem to be white people trying to comfort white people. I have yet to see the church take a public stand on white supremacy and shout from the rooftop, “Black Lives Matter.” I have yet to hear a homily unpacking racism and the church’s complicity in perpetuating racism. Personally, I have felt othered in my preference of worship music. When I first expressed my love of Black gospel and Negro spiritual music, I was told that it was Pentecostal, not Catholic. To me, music is culture. Since the church has historically been white, the music was shaped by that cultural group. So, to be told that Black gospel and Negro spiritual music was not Catholic was similar to being told that being Black is not Catholic.
Race is the one thing that we struggle to talk about. It makes everyone uncomfortable, yet race shapes so much of how we experience the world. Today, I realize how imperative it is to identify with all the parts of me that make me who I am. I cannot think of a better moment than the present to say, “I am unapologetically Guyanese, Black, and Catholic. I commit to showing up in every space that I occupy, owning those three identities.”